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How Safe Are Cosmetics and Personal Care Products?

You may be choosy about your moisturizer, hair color product, and makeup brand—but how much time do you spend checking out the safety of those products?

Cosmetics and personal care items include foundation and mascara, face and body lotion, soaps and shampoos, hair styling products, deodorant, toothpaste, hair dyes, and nail polish. They are considered safe, but that doesn't mean that there aren't risks associated with their use, particularly if you don't use them correctly.

Safety concerns

Some of the safety concerns that may be associated with cosmetics and personal care products include:

  • Eye infections

  • Spreading bacteria on the skin

  • Irritation and scratches on the eye

  • Fire hazards, in the case of aerosol products such as hairspray

  • Allergic reactions or sensitivity to ingredients

  • Contaminants in products not manufactured in the United States 

Using your cosmetics and personal care products properly can help reduce many risks. These include washing off cosmetics before you go to sleep and not sharing any personal products  to prevent the spread of bacteria.

Safety testing

The FDA works to ensure that cosmetic companies follow regulations to keep cosmetics and personal care products as safe as possible. But although the FDA recommends that cosmetic manufacturers test their products, they aren’t required to do so. You can tell what's been tested by looking for a product label that says: “WARNING - The safety of this product has not been determined.” If a product hasn't been tested for safety, it must display that labeling.

You may also see “external D&C,” “D&C,” or “FD&C” followed by the name of a color, for example "D&C Red No. 36." These are color additives. External D&C is only approved for use in cosmetics and in drugs that are applied to the skin. D&C color is only approved for use in drugs and cosmetics, but FD&C color is approved for use in foods, drugs, and cosmetics.

Two commonly used chemicals that have been scrutinized for safety are parabens and phthalates. Parabens are preservatives that prevent the growth of bacteria in personal care products and cosmetics. Although one study suggested a possible link between parabens and breast cancer, further studies have not reached the same conclusion. The levels of parabens used in personal care products today are considered safe, although parabens (and other ingredients) may cause irritation or an allergic reaction in some people.

Phthalates are used to enhance the formulas of a range of cosmetics and personal care products, from shampoo to hair spray to nail polish. They may be used as solvents and perfume fixatives or to help avoid stiffness in hair spray and reduce cracking in nail polish. Although phthalates have been extensively studied and reviewed, a number of panels have agreed that phthalates in these products are safe.

The FDA’s role

The FDA regulates many of these products because items such as antidandruff shampoo, antiperspirants, and medicated lip balm are considered drugs. Color additives and dyes found in hair dye and cosmetics must also be approved by the FDA. The FDA also regulates personal care products that are categorized as medical devices, such as hair remover gadgets, dietary supplements, and consumer products like nail care tools.

Although the FDA doesn't regulate nondrug cosmetics and personal care products, the agency can take legal action against companies that don’t follow safety regulations when making these types of products. Companies must make sure that their products are safe before they can be sold.

Because the FDA can't actually approve most ingredients in cosmetics, personal care products can't be labeled or marketed as "FDA-approved."

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